Perhaps its because I’m an Anglophile, but I always like to keep an eye on the Man Booker Prize, England’s prestigious annual literary award. Past winners have included Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood and, one of my favorites, Ian McEwan, and the shortlist always provides an interesting look into fiction of note for the year. I’m still trying to make my way around to last year’s winner, Aravind Adiga’s “The White Tiger”, but the lure of the 2009 list has proved, yet again, irresistible. This year’s prize was awarded on October 6 to Hilary Mantel for her clever rendering of the enigmatic and infamously cunning Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s controversial right hand man.
I’ve always been deeply fascinated by historical fiction, so Mantel’s novel presents a tantalizing prospect. Cromwell was one of the key players in helping Henry VIII break away from the Catholic Church and has often been reviled by history as the dastardly antithesis to the saintly Thomas More. Mantel says she strove to view the much-retold aspect of Tudor history from Cromwell’s eyes, arranging the familiar facts and characters as he would have seen them and thus presenting what might seem to be a more sympathetic portrait of a difficult man. It seems a fascinating concept and, as I have to admit my Tudor history has grown a bit shaky, I’m hopelessly intrigued.
The other Booker pick that’s caught my eye is one of the shortlisted novels, A.S. Byatt’s “The Children’s Book.” Byatt won the Booker in 1990 for her famed “Possession” (yet another book I want to read!) and she, like Mantel, has delved into the past in her newest installment. “The Children’s Book” is set in the late Victorian era and follows the fortunes of two intersecting families, the Wellwoods and the Fludds, right up to the trenches of the First World War. Olive Wellwood is a popular fantasy author whose fantastic imaginary worlds wreak havoc on her real-life children. The story explores the sometimes dangerous quality of artistic creation and seeks to vividly capture the era; eminent figures of the period like J.M. Barrie and Oscar Wilde apparently have walk-on appearances.
As usual, there’s more books of interest to read than there are hours to read them in, so I’ve once again found myself in a dilemma — which do I choose first? Perhaps another Barnes and Noble visit is in store.